This past weekend, I participated in an art workshop for kids in Shelter Cove. The event was sponsored by SCARF, and held at the “Community Clubhouse” right next to the airstrip and the golf course. I have no idea what SCARF stands for, Shelter Cove Arts and Recreation Foundation is my best guess, but whatever their acronym means, they have some pretty cool stuff going on in Shelter Cove. Any kid could attend the workshop, free of charge. They served free pizza and juice boxes, and SCARF provided all of the art materials, including an envelope full of take home art projects for each kid. Paige Wygant led the workshop, all about painting with dots.
She showed the kids some Australian aboriginal dot paintings, and talked about some of the symbols and colors they use in their art. She also brought a poster of the famous painting by Georges Seurat: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and talked about pointillism and impressionism. Paige invited me to to the workshop to play the didgeridoo and talk a little bit about it. I’m always happy for the opportunity to play for people, but until now, I’ve never done an educational presentation about the didgeridoo. I play the thing because I like the way it sounds. I don’t really know much about the culture that spawned it. As soon as she told me about it, I knew I wanted to do it because I wanted to learn to paint with dots, so I had to put together a presentation about the didgeridoo.
I’ve never been to Australia, but I have a library card, and occasional access to the internet, so I looked some stuff up. The kids ate it up. Kids love the didgeridoo. It really speaks to them, and kids are especially open to it. I started by playing a bit, and that immediately got their attention.
After a little opening jam, I told them that music was probably older than words, and that before we had language, people communicated through music. That set the tone for a talk that was more about our shared musical heritage, of which I know a little, than about Australian aboriginal culture, about which I know almost nothing. It went over OK.
I explained that the fossils we find from prehistoric humans are usually made of rock or bone, and that a wooden didgeridoo or a wood and skin drum would decompose rapidly, so we have very little fossil evidence of early musical instruments, but the didgeridoo was undoubtedly one of them. I explained that although we think of the didgeridoo as an Australian instrument, we know there must have been something like a didgeridoo in our distant cultural past, because we have instruments like trumpets and trombones and tubas. Those instruments must have evolved from something like a didgeridoo. Makes sense, right? I played a little more. The kids seemed to buy it.
Then I told the story of how the instrument got its funny name. This is a true story, and it surprised me to learn it. The term “didgeridoo” was coined by a guy named Herbert Basedow writing for Smith’s Weekly magazine in 1925, who published the following sentence: “The aborigine has no music in him, save for the infernal didgeridoo, which makes but one sound didgery, didgery, didgery, ad infinitum.” I explained that this was a mean-spirited and untrue thing to say, and that the British were not very nice to the aboriginal people. I told them that the aboriginal people have lots of music, and that they can do things with music that we can’t. I told them that the aboriginal people know how to use music as a GPS device, or like a map, and that they use songs to find their way around. I swear! I saw it on a Discovery Channel documentary. I found it in a book too, but hey, if anyone wants to straighten me out about this, I’d love to hear from you. I played a little more to remind the kids that didgeridoo music sounds pretty cool, and to gracefully change the subject. I told an aboriginal dreamtime story of how the instrument was created. NOT the one about the giant’s penis. I found a family friendly didgeridoo creation story without any reference to genitalia. I’ll save it. I played a little more, and then talked about how to play the instrument, and played one more piece to finish. A whole room full of kids sat quietly and listened for half-an-hour, so I guess it worked. Then it was time to paint! They gave each kid a nice canvas panel that Paige had prepped for them. Some panels just had a background coat, and some, for the younger kids, had a cool kangaroo design marked out on them. The older kids, including me, I was the oldest kid in the class, by 40 years or so, picked from a selection of Australian themed designs and transferred them, with a pencil and graphite paper, to the canvas. We used fabric paint, which comes in little plastic squeeze bottles perfect for squeezing out tiny drops of paint. I had a lot of fun painting with dots, and so did the rest of the kids. Paige did a great job, and I applaud SCARF for helping to make it happen. Thanks to them, I have a new shtick: didgeridoo presentations for kids. If you’ve got a room full of kids and you need to kill some time, give me a call.